Women gather to fight-back against austerity

By Jane West

This coming weekend the Women’s Assembly Against Austerity will gather in London to discuss the impact of austerity specifically on women. The event is organised under the auspices of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and speakers will include representative from various unions as well as the TUC, women campaigners and activists, researchers and experts. It will be an unmissable opportunity for women in the movement to get together to get the facts and co-ordinate the fight-back. You can register here.

A discussion on the differential impact of the government’s cuts and other austerity measures on women is long overdue. Among those that have been looking at this consistently is the Women’s Budget Group, which brings together academics, researchers, activists and others to analyse the impact of budget measures on women. Their recently published analysis of Osborne’s December financial statement set out the range of ways that the austerity measures are hitting women and government’s consistent failure to take their needs into account.

The executive summary of their paper, The Impact on Women of Autumn Financial Statement 2013, appears below.

The Impact on Women of Autumn Financial Statement 2013 by The Women’s Budget Group Jan 2014

1. Executive summary

The Chancellor George Osborne announced his Autumn Financial Statement (AFS) on 5 December 2013 based on the forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility. Neither the Chancellor’s speech nor the accompanying 123 page document from the Treasury mention women more than once and the AFS is not accompanied by a full gender impact assessment.

Prior to the Autumn statement, the Chancellor declared that the UK’s economy was ‘turning a corner’. Yet whatever tentative recovery the Chancellor may have been talking about, few in the UK are feeling the benefits and especially women. The Women’s Budget Group have detailed the impact of austerity policies on women noting how more often than not, low and middle income women will be the ones most affected . The 2013 Autumn Statement provided no change to a political agenda that has continually disadvantaged women. Despite calling for a ‘responsible recovery’ we find that many of the Chancellor’s programmes will worsen women’s economic position which leads us to ask, if this is recovery, then recovery for who?

a. What does austerity mean for women?

Low income women bear the brunt of austerity. The Chancellor’s announcement of a cap on overall benefits/tax credit spending is likely to disadvantage women more than men, as women are more likely to rely on benefits than men. The cuts in public expenditure will be most detrimental to single female pensioners and female lone parents who will see their income reduced by 4.6% . Women are more likely than men to report feeling no positive impact from this reported economic recovery. An opinion poll conducted just after the Chancellor’s Statement found that the majority of respondents felt no benefit from the recovery in economic growth, with more women (73%) than men (66%) feeling excluded.

Investment in infrastructure is an important part of the Chancellor’s road to recovery and the National Infrastructure Plan released at the same time as the AFS declares that investment in physical infrastructure such as transport and energy is vital for economic growth. However there have been no announcements of policies to ensure that women, as well as men, will benefit from more jobs in these male-dominated industries.

b. No gender impact assessment

Once again the AFS was not supported with a gender impact assessment. Whilst there was an analysis of the impact on households this does not provide any data disaggregated by gender or discuss the gender differentiated impact on women.

c. Employment, earnings and living standards

Though the employment rate has increased for both women and men since the last quarter of 2011, when unemployment peaked, both levels are still below their pre-crisis level of 2008.

Meanwhile real earnings have declined, involuntary part-time employment has increased, and for the first time in five years the gender pay gap has widened (ONS 2013a) . Though more men than women have lost their jobs as a result of public sector job cuts, women have not benefitted from the growth in private sector jobs as their unemployment levels have fallen more slowly than men’s. Private sector job creation has not produced the well-paid and stable employment that the public sector offered. There are three times as many young women doing low-paid jobs than 20 years ago, suggesting that women are not benefitting much from private sector job creation.

d. Employment measures

Once again the job creation measures announced by the Chancellor have not been accompanied by a gender impact assessment or any accompanying measures to ensure that women benefit equally. The headline measures to create jobs include measures to help small businesses and the retail sector (including pubs, cafes, restaurants and charity shops). These will not be the better quality jobs needed to replace the public sector jobs which are being lost.

The ‘Help to Work’ scheme loads women (who are far more likely to have caring responsibilities) with unnecessary burdens which will make their care work more stressful. Lack of compliance will result in benefit sanctions, hitting both women and the dependants they care for.

Though increased investment in apprenticeships is welcome, young women are more likely to go into low-paid apprenticeships, such as hairdressing, than apprenticeships in higher earning fields such as construction or technology. Any investment in apprenticeships must be accompanied by a more concerted effort to get women into science, engineering and technology.

e. Benefits/tax credits

It is possible to achieve the government’s deficit reduction goals by raising taxes rather than cutting public expenditure, as the Chancellor himself acknowledges in the AFS. Instead the government has made a gendered choice to focus on cuts to benefits rather than raising taxes; this has a more advantages for men, as they tend to have higher incomes than women.

The WBG has already outlined our concerns about Universal Credit in several other briefings. The AFS brought a new announcement that the earnings disregards (the amount that can be earned before UC begins to be withdrawn) will be frozen for 3 years, from 2014/15 to 2016/175. This cut will save £600m/year when UC is fully in place in 2017/18. As most second earners are women, universal credit will result in a higher withdrawal rate (‘taper’) for many second earners compared with both that of first earners and the current situation under tax credits.

The government have already recognised that 85% if the beneficiaries of the Transferable Tax Allowance will be men and that only 36% of married coupled will actually benefit. We argue that financing for the TTA would be better spent elsewhere, such as restoring child benefit to all families.

f. Public Services

Central government departments will have been cut by just over 8% by the end of 2013/14. Without further cuts to spending on social security, or tax rises, the plans announced in the AFS imply cuts of more than 20% in spending on public services by 2018/19.

There were some announcements of spending increases and the WBG welcomes the extension of free schools meals to all children in reception, year 1 and year 2. Increased funding for higher education will benefit women, whose are equally represented in higher education as a whole, but women will not benefit equally from the £50m per year additional funding for STEM courses.

WBG notes that the ‘Right to Buy’ schemes have removed £2m worth of housing from the social sector, which has not been replaced by adequate like – for – like accommodation. Moreover, the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme does not address the chronic lack of affordable social housing in the UK.

g. Conclusions

Again we urge the Chancellor to rethink his economic strategy. His plan is not working for women. The WBG proposes a Plan F – a feminist economic strategy – to ensure everyone is fairly rewarded for the paid and the unpaid contributions they make to the economy, their communities and to their families. The WBG finds that women gain far more from greater public spending , as compared to tax cuts; and advocates increased spending on public services, benefits, tax credits and state pension, all areas that help the poorest women, funded by increases in taxation on people and corporations that can afford to pay more.